Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dartford Junior parkrun 24

Over the last six months or so, my daughter, Matilda, has not really been interested in running at junior parkrun. However, when I suggested we could pop over to Central Park for Dartford Junior parkrun's 24th event, she said that she quite fancied it.

So we made a plan to take part in the parkrun and then go to the pub for a father-daughter breakfast. After what felt like an age of faffing around, we finally got out of the house 21 minutes before the run was due to start.

warm up...

Arriving at the start just a minute before the warm-up was due to start, we got changed out of our coats and Matilda went over to get loosened up while I sorted out our bag. A few minutes later we were at the start line and ready to go.

As soon as we started, Matilda decided that we should play Formula 1, so we picked Red Bull as our team and got to work on our first lap. We had a few slower moments where a rest was required, but by large we kept moving at one speed or another.

junior parkrunner and her v25 t-shirt

High-fives were being handed out left, right and centre by the fantastic course marshals. By the time we reached lap 2, we decided to bring on some F1 themed pit-stops. So every couple of hundred metres one of us would pull into the pits and the other would change the wheels and then release us back onto the track.

I had no idea how much time we had taken to go around the course because I had forgotten to take my stopwatch. We soon reached the final straight and Matilda took the chequered flag while I peeled off onto the grass next to the finish funnel (adults are not allowed in the finish funnel).

finishing token

It turns out that Matilda [parkrun profile] had managed to knock three seconds off her all-time junior parkrun personal best. Her new PB stands at 15.18, which of course, she's not overly fussed about because, well, she's six years old and was more interested in playing with the other children.

I, on the other hand, was very excited about her new PB, especially as it had been six months since she last took part in a junior parkrun. We continued our morning, as planned, with a visit to the pub for some jam on toast and a drink before heading back home to watch the final race of the Formula 1 season.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Kent Fitness League 2016/17: Oxleas Wood

The Kent Fitness League race at Oxleas Wood is a special one for me as it is the venue that I made my KFL debut at back in 2014. This year it marked the first venue that I have run at twice - the good thing is that I had a benchmark to compare myself to. The bad news is that my running was going much better back at that first race, so my expectations were pretty low for my return visit.

The race coincided with the Storm Angus weekend, which brought with it heavy rain and winds gusting at 50mph or so. Fortunately the worst of the storm had passed by the time the race started and despite being very cold while hanging around beforehand, the conditions for racing were spot on. The rain had made sure we had plenty of mud to play in and the woods provided shelter from the remaining gusts of wind.

pre-race [photos: dani / 7t / jonathan pegg]

After the previous weekend's cross country race at Swanley, my calves had been left in tatters, so I was a little nervous about running in my cross country spikes again incase they made them even worse. However the conditions seemed right to choose the spikes over my standard trail shoes, and as my calves had been sore all week, I started the race quite conservatively.

The course here consists of the start and finish area on the large, open grass area (Oxleas Meadows) at the bottom of the hill, and the rest of the race run in two separate sections of the woods with a little gap in between where the runners pass the cafe at the top of the hill - this is great because it allows spectators to hang out near (or in) the cafe (also has toilets) and pop out to cheer and then get back in the warm if they prefer.

start [photos: studio gecko / dani]

So, back to my expectations. In November 2014 I ran this race in 39.45 and at the same time I was running 5k in just over 19 minutes. On the day of the 2016 race I was capable of running 5k about a minute slower than that, so I worked out that I should expect to complete the race in just over 41 minutes. I lined up quite close to the front, but not so close that I'd be forced to go off very fast - remember, my calves were of concern to me.

By the time we reached the top of the hill and weaved around to the entrance to the woods, things were pretty congested. The next couple of kilometres, run on mostly fairly narrow trail paths through the woods were a little slow and even featured a few points where the sheer number of runners meant that we were forced to slow to walking pace. This first section of woods features the steepest of the inclines.

out on the course [photos: studio gecko / becca]

As we went into the second section of woods, the field had spread out enough to allow runners to maintain their preferred paces. My main memory of this section was the stunning yellow and orange leaves of the trees which created a beautiful glow above our heads. At the end of this section of woods, the runners pop back out onto Oxleas Meadows and head back up the hill for a second lap.

The conditions underfoot were soft and muddy, but not quite as splashy as it was the last time I raced here. Wearing spikes was the right decision, but there were some stony paths and tree roots to keep an eye out for. With the congestion gone, the second lap was much more enjoyable and I was pleased with my last couple of kilometres, where I managed to catch and pass a few other runners.

around the course / end [photos: eden / becca / studio gecko]

My calves, while sore, were just about behaving themselves, but I was still happy to exit the woods for the last time and head towards the finish. Once across the line, I was handed my raffle ticket, which had number 117 on it. This was upgraded to 116 out of 428 (gender placing: 105/291) in the official results. I was given an overall rating/score of 64.26.

I was disappointed as I seem to be going backwards in terms of overall placing this season (100th, 103rd, and now 116th). Still, there was a silver lining in the fact that my finishing time was recorded as 40.03 which is only 18 seconds slower than my time from 2014. To see the course in detail please take a look at my GPS file on Strava - Kent Fitness League: Oxleas Wood 2016

post-run [photos: dani]

My wife and daughter had come to support me and they were waiting at the finish line with some warm clothes for me to put on, which was absolutely essential as it was freezing out on that field. After a brief period congratulating and chatting to my running buddies, it was time to get out of the cold so we headed off back to the car which was parked on Rochester Way (adjacent to the start/finish area).

With the third race of the season completed, there is a short break as the usual December fixtures have been moved to January. It's a good opportunity to get in some more training or have some rest before part two of the season gets underway in January, which I'm really looking forward to.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Homewood parkrun

Just over a mile to the south west of Chertsey town centre, you will find the stunning, grade II* listed, Palladian style building that is Botleys Mansion. It was built in the 1760s on an elevated site where it is thought a 14th century manor house once stood. The architect, Kenton Couse, was also responsible for the remodelling of 10 Downing Street between 1776 and 1775.

homewood park

The estate was known as Botleys Park and its ownership passed through many hands over the years. By the 1930s, the mansion and grounds had been sold to either London or Surrey County Council (conflicting info exists) and become a central part of the 'The Botleys Park Colony for Mental Defectives', which covered 334 acres (135 hectares) and eventually became known as the Botleys Park Hospital.

The mansion is now owned by a company called Bijou and is used primarily as a venue for weddings. Most of the original grounds have been consumed by the adjacent St. Peter's Hospital and some office blocks. The remaining parkland now covers just 23 hectares and is a public space managed by Runnymede Borough Council called Homewood Park, which is where Homewood parkrun takes place.

run briefing / start

I wasn't feeling particularly touristy on the day I visited, but I dragged myself out of bed and soon found myself 'Homewood bound'. I visited the venue on a frosty November morning to take part in event number 6. I parked the car in the car park just off of Stonehill Road where parking is free for up to 3 hours, but you must obtain and display a ticket from the machine to cover your time there (just press the green button and it will dispense a ticket).

If you were to look on the Homewood parkrun webpage, you would see that the recommended car park is the St Peter's Hospital Woodland Car Park, which costs 80p per hour. However, I would imagine that the majority of people will use the closer, free option above. There seemed to be plenty of space to accommodate the day's 98 runners plus volunteers and still leave space for other park users.

first section of lap

The closest train station is Chertsey, which is right in the middle of the town centre (as mentioned above, just over a mile away from the park). I didn't spot any cycle racks in the park, but there are a few places where a bicycle could be secured.

Toilet facilities are available just next to the Stonehill Car Park, which is also right next to the parkrun meeting area. It's worth noting that the local council's webpage states that the toilets are open from April to September, however the parkrun event team hold the keys so they should be open for parkrunners all year round.

far end of the course

The grounds here are gently undulating and very scenic. They consist of areas of open, roughly mown grassland, a few small wooded patches and the odd outcrop of trees. The mansion stands proud at the highest point of the park and is an impressive sight from any angle. As I waited for the run briefing there was a friendly chatter in the air which made the event feel much more established than I would have expected for such a young event.

The run itself takes place over three, gently undulating, clockwise laps of the park (in fact, it's almost an out-and-back course). Underfoot you'll find a combination of stony, slightly gravelly paths, tarmac and grass. I imagine the preferred footwear will vary throughout the year as conditions change. I opted for my light trail shoes and these worked out just fine as there were only a few small patches of mud, but during the summer, I suspect road shoes will be the better option.

the way back

As for a little description of the lap, here goes - the runners start on a gravelly, bridle path and follow this as it weaves around and changes elevation on its way towards the far end of the park. I'll make a special note of a short, sharp incline early on which leads into a sheltered, wooden section (lots of leaves underfoot in autumn).

The path continues to weave along the northern border of the park until reaching the eastern tip where there is a small footbridge to cross which is followed by a very tight right-hand turn. The runners now run along a stretch of pavement which follows Hillswood Drive for around 200m. Another sharp right hand turn over a second footbridge returns the runners to the main body of the park.

the final section of the lap

The path here is gravelly to start with and it leads the runners through another small, twisty wooded section and underfoot changes to a narrow, heavily cambered tarmac path which leads back towards the start line and past the meeting point (expect lots of cheers here - thanks marshals!). A u-turn around a large tree followed by another short wooded section completes the lap.

At the end of the third lap, the runners continue past the u-turn point and head onto the grass where they have the opportunity to use up the last of their energy before entering the finish funnel, collecting a finish token and taking a well-earned breather. You can see my full GPS course data here: Strava - Homewood parkrun.

the finish

During my visit, barcode scanning took place in between the finish and the meeting area where I gave the scanner a choice of my UK wristband or my brand new Polish wristband to scan. After a few tries at scanning the deteriorating barcode on my UK band, the barcode scannerer promptly moved onto the Polish one which scanned straight away. Info on barcode options can be found here.

As it was cold and I didn't want to stand still for too long, I headed off around the park for a cool down and to take some photos, where I bumped into fellow parkrunner, twitterer and core team member Stephanie the Magpie, who, according to The parkrun Show, is not actually a real magpie (if this makes no sense, just go and listen to the entire back-catalogue of The parkrun Show). Also interesting was the cryptic teaser that I might want to revisit this venue again in early 2017...


I was asked if I would like to join the team for some post-run refreshments at The Old School Cafe, but sadly, I had to decline as I was due back over in Dartford before midday. Now 'Homeward Bound' I reflected on a very pleasant morning at this fab new Surrey parkrun venue, which also marked the occasion of me re-completing the set of parkruns in Surrey. A huge thanks, as always, goes to the team of volunteers who made it all possible.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Kent Fitness League 2016/17: Swanley Park

Round two of the 2016/17 Kent Fitness League cross country season took place on Sunday 13 November 2016. It was my first time running at this particular race and doing so meant that I have now run at all of the current venues [more info on venues here], albeit over three different seasons.

I had spent the week leading up to the race avoiding training as my chest had been a little congested and I was worried that I could be getting a chest infection. However, on the morning of the race, things felt fairly clear so I felt that it would be fine to go with a full race effort.

swanley park

I had also been a little concerned at a strange sensation I could feel around my right knee which started after the previous day's Dartford parkrun. On the morning of the race, the sensation was there but wasn't too noticeable when running.

Although the weather had been fairly dry during the weeks leading up to the race, the day beforehand had seen quite a prolonged period of heavy rain. With this in mind, I had arrived at the venue with a selection of four different pairs of shoe options; my old trail shoes, new trail shoes, light trail shoes, and my spikes.

course map and start [photos: 7t / valentino]

There are two car parks - the largest of the two is accessed from New Barn Road and the smaller one is found just off the side streets near the town centre. Once I had spent some time wandering around, I registered my attendance with my team manager and popped into the gents, which are next to the cafe, and then went off to get changed. Even though the ground was still fairly firm, there was a layer of water on the grass which was a little slippery. With this in mind I picked my cross country spikes.

Being remembrance Sunday, the 11.05am race start time was preceded by a minute's silence. This was followed by a second period of silence for the two members of Aldershot, Farnham and District AC who were tragically killed in an accident during a training run a few days earlier.

around the course [photos: 7t / becca]

I got myself into a better starting position than I had at the first race of the season and made a fairly good start with no hold-ups or congestion to worry about. The route weaves around quite a bit, crosses a few paths and the railway track as it progresses through the park.

At the 2016 race, the route was adjusted slightly from the previous year and consisted of one shorter lap of the main body of the park, followed by two longer laps which took in the far west side of the park. The west end of the park features a more natural-type of terrain and a short section through some woods.

around the course [photos: becca]

Very soon after starting, I realised that going with the spikes was probably not the best decision and that trail shoes would have been the better option. My race was incident-free and I was pretty happy with my relatively even paced splits.

Despite being passed by a few people on the way round, I did end on a high when I made back a couple of places during the last kilometre. I finished the race in 103rd position out of 469 finishers, which was again a little disappointing, but it's all I have in me at the moment so it's a fair reflection of my current fitness level.

the final few metres (it felt like a strong finish to me) [photos: valentino / 7t]

I recorded the course using the Strava app on my phone (I still haven't got a computer that is compatible with my Garmin) and you can see my GPS data, including the route and the hill profile in detail, here; KFL Swanley Park 2016.

The full results were available online the day after and my official finishing time was 37.23. I was the 92nd male over the line, which is an improvement on the first race of the season (I'll take what I can here). However, due to the lower amount of runners overall, my score/rating was a little lower at 71.11.

hoooops [photos: 7t]

The morning after the race, my calves were in absolute agony and I'm putting this down to wearing my spikes on ground that was too firm for them. So I'm going to have to keep that in mind for future races and I think my policy is going to be that I wear trail shoes unless the conditions are so bad that they I'd be sliding all over the place without spikes.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Hadleigh parkrun

Hadleigh is a town in Essex, not far from Southend. In the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III, the Manor of Hadleigh belonged to Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent, and Chief Justiciar (equivalent to the modern day position of Prime Minister), who built the original Hadleigh Castle which is the town's most well known feature. It was seized by the king a few years later and retained as a royal castle.

The castle suffered subsidence due it being built on an unstable outcrop of London Clay. Over the years it was rebuilt and expanded by various monarchs and, in later years, was owned by various Earls and Dukes. In 1544 the estate was broken up and much of the land sold off. The castle itself was purchased in 1551 and over the next 24 years, the valuable stone was sold off leaving a ruin.

hadleigh park [photos: 7t / dani]

What remained of the castle was sketched by John Constable in 1814 and the finished painting is considered to be 'one of his most monumental works'. In 1891, the castle and the remaining 900 acres of land were bought by a William Booth who established Hadleigh Farm as part of his 'Darkest England' scheme where the extremely poor were offered work and shelter. During the second world war, the farm provided accommodation to around 70 Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe, and being close to the Thames, formed part of the key defensive ring around London.

The modern day Hadleigh Farm is owned and run by the Salvation Army and continues the work started by William Booth by offering training to disadvantaged people to help them find employment. The farm was used as the venue for the 2012 Olympic Games Mountain Biking events (chosen over the nearby Weald Country Park, which also now has a parkrun - Brentwood parkrun).

start area [photos: dani / 7t]

Post Olympics, the Active Essex team at Essex County Council have preserved this sporting legacy by creating a world class mountain biking facility called 'Hadleigh Park' which is adjacent to the farm land. In addition to these, the remaining land is a conservation area called 'Hadleigh Country Park' or 'Hadleigh Castle Country Park'.

In additional to the mountain bike trails, Hadleigh Park has a pump track, a playground, walking trails, a cafe, and, from 22nd October 2016 a free, weekly, 5km run called Hadleigh parkrun. We travelled over to the venue by car on 5 November 2016 to take part in event number 3 and we parked in the large on-site car park (400 spaces) where the fee is £1.50 per hour (payable upon exit) - this is capped to a maximum of £6. As you'd expect from a world class cycling facility, cyclists are well catered for here and there are an abundance of bicycle racks.

switchback [photos: andy kenyon]

Those travelling by train will need to head for Benfleet Station which is right outside the country park, but at the opposite end to the run meeting point which means there are 2 uphill miles to cover on foot before reaching the start. There are on-site toilet facilities just next to the car park and 'The Hub' cafe, which is where the post-run refreshments can be had - the cafe is run by the Salvation Army. The meeting point for the run is past the playground (which got a big thumbs up from my daughter), over a cattle grid and across a small field. Expect to find some curious cows hanging around this point.

The run briefing takes place here and the runners are then sent off on a 5km lollipop-style route around the park (1.3km out / 2.4km loop / 1.3km back). Probably a teething problem here, but the start sign was in the ground about 20 metres or so from the run briefing area and I was expecting everyone to be ushered over to the start sign for the formal start. However the runners were sent off straight from the briefing area. This resulted in me starting from the back and it took quite a while to filter through the back end of the field and into some clear running space.

the course [photos: 7t]

The start is at the highest point (64m) of the park and the first kilometre of the route features a hair-raising, downhill combination of switchbacks and chicanes all on a loose gravel path - my GPS data recorded a -14% gradient at the steepest section. It's worth noting that there is a pinch point about 300 metres in as runners squeeze through a narrow gate and into the country park.

After this, the course undulates for a bit until the runners reach the far end of the country park and head down another steeper path (nice view across Hadleigh Ray here) where the the lowest point (5m) of the course is reached, at around the 3km point. It stays relatively flat about about 800 metres, but then at around the 3.5km point the course swings onto grass and starts to head back uphill - my GPS data picked up a 16% incline at its steepest here.

the course / coming back up the switchbacks [photos: 7t / andy kenyon]

Once back onto the gravelly path, there's a little break in the climbing, but the 5th kilometre is all uphill back along the opening section of chicanes and then the switchbacks. As you head back up the switchbacks, you'll get a glimpse of the remains of the castle in the distance - which is worth taking some time to admire even though at this point you'll just be wanting the finish line to appear and will most-likely not really care about the castle.

The finish line does, of course, appear shortly after this and you'll soon be discussing that last kilometre with whoever you find slumped next to you on the grass (watch out for cow pats). The last few metres of the course are a little odd at the moment as since starting the event, it has become apparent that vehicle access is required to an adjacent facility.

view across to the castle / finish [photos: 7t / dani / official photographer]

My gut feeling is that this is not going to be one of those venues that runners completing their couch-to-5k programmes are going to flock in great droves because this is a pretty tough course. At the same time it does offer some great views across the country park, The Thames Estuary / Hadleigh Ray and Canvey Island.

As far as footwear goes, I ran in my trail shoes but you would be fine in standard road shoes during the summer months. I'm not entirely sure if the paths will suffer much during the winter months, but considering there is a short (250m) section on grass, I would probably stick with trail shoes over the winter just to be on the safe side. Oh, and if you're a buggy runner, you will be able to get around, but you'll have to be extremely careful on that opening downhill and the last kilometre will be absolute agony!

post-run [photos: dani]

With the morning's exercise done, we headed over to the cafe where we ordered a couple of hot drinks. I was a little surprised that a cup of tea and an instant hot chocolate cost us £4.50, but we sat down and continued our analysis of the day's parkrun anyway. The results for event 3 were online within an hour or so and there had been a turnout of 106.

I was planning to have a walk over to Hadleigh Castle to take a closer look, but I started to feel unwell and it was cold so we paid our £4.50 parking fee and may our way off to Southend and popped into a vegan pub where everyone (except me) had some great vegan food. I had planned to have a vegan full English breakfast, but didn't feel well enough so I'll have to pop back over when I'm feeling a little better. That aside we'd had a great morning at Hadleigh Park, so if you fancy a tough 5k run in Essex, this is right up there along with the equally challenging Brentwood parkrun.

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